This week’s parashah is Vayechi, which is the final sidrah of the book of Genesis. Jacob blesses his sons before he takes leave of the world, and Genesis concludes with the death of Joseph.
Jacob’s blessings for the first three of his sons, Reuben, Simeon and Levi, allude to events in their lives when they had fallen short and are unexpectedly sharp and critical. One of the great Rabbinic figures of nineteenth century Lithuania explained this by suggesting that to be given an understanding of one’s own shortcomings is the most profound blessing that one can receive, as it gives an insight into the work of reparation that will be a key element of one’s personal religious life, but nevertheless the verses remain difficult.
The harsh words spoken to Simeon and Levi refer to violent acts committed in great anger and they are traditionally taken as references to the Dinah story and the plot to take the life of Joseph.
Jacob’s words to his sons are as follows: “Simeon and Levi are brethren; weapons of violence their kinship. Let my soul not come into their council and may my honour not be united with their assembly, for in their anger they took human life and they deliberately houghed oxen. Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce, and their wrath, for it was cruel: I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel (49:5-7).”
Jacob’s words in the immediate aftermath of the violence had been somewhat less forthright: “And Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, ‘You have disturbed me, to make me odious unto the inhabitants of the land, the Canaanites and the Perizites, and I being few in number, they will gather themselves together against me and smite me and destroy me and my household.’ And (the brothers) said, ‘Shall we stand by when our sister has been treated as a harlot (34:30-31)?’” Jacob does not reply and the story moves on without further comment.
The reader might well be disturbed by what appears to be the moral ambivalence of the narration and the lack of engagement with the brothers’ defence of their very terrible act. One recalls the extraordinary power of God’s response to Cain in Genesis 4 when he too had tried to evade coming to terms with the gravity of what he had done, or Jacob’s own distress at the prospect of taking life, even in self-defence, in the rabbinic reading of 32:7 before his expected confrontation with Esau. In our parashah Jacob expresses the traditional abhorrence for bloodshed in no uncertain terms, but the ambivalence of Genesis 34 remains troubling.
However, a striking feature of the Genesis narratives is that they do not always offer explicit moral judgements. The Hebrew Bible has different streams: law codes, prophetic utterance and ethical principles all offer absolute moral clarity, but narratives can sometimes remain remarkably open and non-prescriptive, leaving the reader to make his or her own judgements without any explicit guidance.
The Bible certainly provides us with an absolute moral framework and, especially in the prophetic literature, there is a passion for righteous conduct, but there is also room for imaginative engagement in narrative settings that, at least initially, are non-judgemental.
Such engagement enables us to develop as moral persons and is a prerequisite for a compassionate society.
The exchange between Jacob and his sons recorded in Genesis 34 is not a moral discussion; it represents the raw responses of fear, guilt and attempted exculpation in the immediate aftermath of an atrocity. The moral response comes later, in the verses cited above from this week’s parashah. Jacob completely discounts his sons’ explanation for what had taken place, citing an affinity with violence and excessive and uncontrollable anger as the true causes of the catastrophe. In contemporary terms, one might say that he was also aware of the power of transgenerational traumas – traumatic responses can recur centuries after the event if similar threatening situations arise – and tried to forestall it.
In recent decades, new psychological approaches to understanding and reconciling violent conflict have become part of the language of peace-making. Moral clarity is always crucial, but it is not compromised by hearing all sides and understanding them in order to promote a resolution that is both practical and just for everyone involved. Hearing all sides is indispensable if true peace is ever to be achieved.